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Holy Motors: Holy Shit!

by Dylan Holmes

How do I write a whole article about a movie, like “Holy Motors,” that resists critical interpretation? Where do I go when even the director, Leos Carax, willfully guards himself from interviews? I hate the New Yorker review and Google isn’t helping, so I’m at a loss.

Here, I have an idea: Please allow me a paragraph to type out whatever comes to my mind, and maybe I’ll find something in there that’ll help me out with this.

The experiencing of acting there are a lot of masks and ourselves are splintered into ideas of ourselves and maybe acting is that’s what acting is but then cinema is dying or is it just the oldcinema that is dying he’s saying something about shrinking not sure whats shrinking cameras and death and death but not really death constructed construction architecture of person architecture of the person Bakhtin said something about this I think good acting machines machines they are disappearing and yet their presence is everywhere maybe? Paris the beauty of Paris or not. Cliches cliches wetry to fighttheclichesbuttheyalwayswinbecauseitstheonlywayweknowhow to construct ourselves? is there a self in this film or fuck too much hum220 i guess well there’s a god right and maybe oscar’s an angel that’s interesting but then what are the cars when does this take place i wonder if its the present but it’s a representation of the present the present devil angels christians Sleepers and cinema dogs near death apocalypse repetition where is home nowhere i guess start with a summary we all need a summary     ok

Alright, thanks for your patience everyone. That helped a lot. So let’s pretend that THIS is the beginning of the article (I apologize for all the confusion). “Holy Motors” came out in 2012, ending director Leos Carax’s thirteen-year hiatus from feature-length films. The star of the film is Denis Lavant, who gives an incredible and unforgettable performance as the mysterious Mr. Oscar. Edith Scob co-stars as his faithful driver Celine. They seem to have the only viable character connection in the whole movie, which is mostly because the movie itself is more of a meta-movie in which almost every interaction is a mini-movie that ends as soon as the characters are no longer obligated to each other.

That probably makes no sense, but really trying to approach “Holy Motors” as a logical sequence of events rather than a sort of self-perpetuating totality is pointless. I can say a few things that might ground the story a little better, but the rest is pretty interpretative and depends on who you are as a person (I know, scary). Mr. Oscar appears to be employed as some sort of “actor” who is driven to various appointments throughout the day and acts out a “scene” with people who I can only presume are other actors. These scenes can be anything from him begging on the street as an old woman to chastising his daughter as a disappointed single father driving her home from a party. At one point he’s a loathsome bestial sewer-dwelling man dubbed in the credits as Monsieur Merde (Mr. Shit, if you must know), who steals a supermodel (Eva Mendes) from a graveyard photoshoot and takes her back to his underground chamber. Somehow, Mr. Oscar manages all these roles perfectly, but we’re never given why he must perform these roles.

At one point in the middle of his appointments, a man of ambiguous authority ends up in the limousine and questions Oscar about the commitment to his roles, whether he’s getting “tired.” Oscar responds that the cameras have gotten so small that it’s hard to believe that they’re there anymore. This is probably key to understanding what “Holy Motors” is “about,” since the subject of machines getting both more ubiquitous and becoming impossible to see is a topic that re-emerges throughout the film as an expressed concern, something inevitable and ominous, looming over our heads. Oscar could mean in a literal sense that he exists in some near-future where camera technology has advanced so much that the cameras are invisible to the naked eye, but regardless of the literalness of his statements he expresses a more humanistic paranoia that the meaning we place in our lives is in the performance of it. And if there’s no audience to that performance then who actually gives a fuck about you?

But I’m gonna back away from that existential question for a moment, and only partially because I’m starting to sound a lot like I did in the Jean-Paul Sartre paper I wrote a couple months ago. Because in the vein of performance, “Holy Motors” explores the question of what happens when the lived experience is forced through movie tropes, effectively “cinematizing” the individual and stripping him of his autonomy. And THAT’S pretty interesting. Carax seems to have beef with the failure of the “old cinema” to create meaning out of a new medium. Maybe, to him, all it’s created is a tiresome list of tropes that easily evoke the proper emotions in the audience that will keep them coming back. The actor can just step out of that role and drive over to the next one. The connections you thought the characters made were really just a professional, contractual agreement between two people to pretend to like each other long enough to get paid. Maybe Carax came back from the metaphorical grave to tell us all that the digitization and the acceleration of technology doesn’t change the fact that Cinema Is Dead and all it has done is make us see ourselves as various incarnations of non-real characters.

But you know, that’s MY interpretation, and its a pretty gruesome one I’ll admit. In fact I could be totally wrong, because Carax could also be celebrating the history of cinema if you’re a little more positive than I am. The character of Monsieur Merde is actually borrowed from Carax’s segment of the anthology film “Tokyo!,” which is one instance in many of the inner-allusions to his own creative process and the world his movies inhabit. The various movie tropes and genres that are explored (melodramas, beauty/beast dynamics, action thrillers, musicals) are genuinely entertaining and evocative in their own right, and there’s a certain nostalgia to the performances. At one point, Oscar asks Celine if he has any appointments in the forest, but he doesn’t: “Too bad...I miss forests.” Whenever Oscar is just himself he has the expression of someone who’s nostalgic for something. Mainly, he misses the sincerity of his performances. But perhaps the monotony has beat it out of him, or maybe he feels hollowed out as a person himself. Which would make sense considering we’re never given a single hint of where Mr. Oscar came from or where he’s going, or really what it is his performances are even for. Every time we think we’re getting a sincere glimpse into his life, we realize it’s just another performance. The limo he’s shuffled around in is the only nucleus of stability we’re given for understanding Oscar and Celine, and I even hesitate to say we can trust these moments in the film.

Celine herself is the neglected woman of the whole film. She’s the female lead, yet she’s intentionally shoved to the side for most of the action. Non-present for the performances and generally ignored by Oscar, one can only wonder what she must think about all day confined to the front seat of a limousine. And Carax makes it pretty clear that there’s a lot going on with her that we’re not seeing. In the only prolonged interaction Celine has with Oscar, she says that she was once a dancer. When Oscar asks “Once?” she hastily replies, “No, I don’t know.” We’re almost given a morsel of her background, but before we can bite down it’s cruelly yanked back from us. And we’re forced back into seeing her only in her worried glances to Oscar through a backseat camera. She’s almost consumed by the structure of the film, but all the same she has a looming importance. I can’t help emphasizing her role only because I feel like Carax wants me to. I won’t say when, but at a crucial moment in the story she puts on a white mask with no face and only cut-outs for the eyes and nostrils. When I looked up Edith Scob, I was surprised to find out that her most famous role was the facially disfigured daughter in the 1960 French-Italian horror film “Eyes Without a Face.” The famous image that emerged from the movie was that of the daughter’s mask she used to cover her mangled features. The mask in that movie and the one Celine puts on in “Holy Motors” are almost exactly the same and are both worn by the same actress 52 years apart from each other. So what the fuck is up with THAT?

Well, my conjecture is that it’s a sort of literalized visual of the masks we don to hide our true forms, which would make sense if you think of “Holy Motors” in some ways as a film portraying a loss of identity. Our words are abstracted from our thoughts, which are further abstracted from the bodily functions that produced those thoughts. So nothing’s genuine. You want your friends to think of you in some way, and your potential employer to think of you in some completely different fashion. The way your thoughts seem to flow in an essay are actually the product of hours of review, because if you wrote your essay like you talked in conference your professors would despise you (unless they’re into that). Life is a series of appointments you have to make to perform as well as you can and then move on to the next one. “See you tomorrow, Mr. Oscar.”

But wait, none of this is necessarily a bad thing! Those performances can be fun and beautiful and a little heartbreaking. There’s no point in striving for some kernel of truth in all of it, because let’s admit it: we’re all a lil’ fake. In our postmodern condition the Self has been fragmented and split up and chopped and screwed and what we’ve realized is that there’s no way to decide The Single Unified Self anymore, because that’s just fascist. The history of film added up to what it is now for you to understand yourself (yourselves?) a little better in terms that are probably a little more romantic and more formulaic than real life. And who can fault le cinéma for that? Also the movie’s really pretty and all that. But I could just be bullshitting you, so you should probably go watch it and decide what to make of it for yourself. *winky emoticon*